Senin, 19 September 2011

The Obsessed

I've recently read The Possessed by Elif Batuman, a book in which she discusses her adventures with Russian literature. She writes (amongst other things) about her experiences on a summer abroad in Uzbekistan, the international Tolstoy conference in Yasnaya Polyana (Tolstoy's estate) and travelling to St Petersburg to see a house made of ice. I really enjoyed reading her book and would definitely recommend it. Her style of writing is never overly academic, but with a clear passion for Russian literature - exactly what I'm trying to aim for! The tagline for The Possessed (named after the original translation of Dostoyevsky's The Demons) is 'Adventures with Russian books and the People Who Read Them'. As a person who reads Russian books and likes to have Russian adventures, I have been inspired to write my own journey through Russian literature which I have wittily titled The Obsessed (inspired by my slight obsession of all things Russian).

My first experience with Russian literature was in my first year at university. Unlike others I hadn't chosen to study Russian because of any previous interest in the history or literature of the country - I just wanted to learn the language. I decided to do the literature module though because I love reading.
The first book we read was One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhnitsyn; a story about the gulag written by somebody who had actually been there. One of the key things I found with the story was how matter of fact and not over emotional it was just like Solzhnitsyn himself. When he was expelled from the Soviet Union he moved to the USA but hated it. He reportedly said that the problem with America was that people were too happy and laid back and this got in the way of life. After the collapse of the USSR he returned to Russia immediately and loved Putin and his strong leadership.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov was my favourite book from my first year of Russian literature and is the story of the devil playing havoc in Moscow. I liked the more imaginative tone of the book - different to the usual epic love stories or tragedies Russian literature is known for. I also liked the back story about the pretention of Soviet literary circles. I find that I learn the most about history through studying novels.
Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak was the only book I had heard of on the reading list. I had to do a presentation on the novel but at the time found the whole 'epic love story' tediously boring. So I just watched the film. Still got a good mark though - I did my presentation on the poetry at the end of the novel which I had actually bothered to read. I really should go back and actually read it now.

When I studied in Petrozavodsk in July 2008 I had my first experience of reading Russian literature in the original Russian. The reading classes mainly consisted of our teacher making us read out a paragraph of a Russian short story then asking понятно (ponyatno - do you understand)? to which we all quickly nodded despite not having a clue what the paragraph had been about. It was in this class that I first read some of Chekov's short stories... although because I spent most of the class trying desperately to look like I understood what was going on I can't remember which ones exactly. Oops.

In my second year of university I entered a competition to win the contents of Alexa Chung's bag - I didn't want the contents, just the Mulburry they came in. I noticed one of the items she claimed to carry around was Nabokov's collection of short stories. I bought the book and started to read through them, finding many to be inspired by his early years growing up in Russia but then living abroad for the majority of his life. The main feature of Vladimir Nabokov's short stories is that they ALL end in tragedy. For example in his story A Russian Beauty the main character is Olga, a girl who was beautiful in her youth but never managed to marry. Once grown up she has had a hard life and lost her youth. Her friends set her up with a man who she agrees to wed. Then a year later she dies in childbirth. The interesting thing about this story is that the announcement of their engagement and her death is all in the same sentence...
"When they came to breakfast, Vera, her husband, and his maiden cousin, in utter silence, were performing nonexistent dances, each in a different corner, and Olga drawled out in an affectionate voice "What boors!" and next summer she died in childbirth."
It became almost a joke to me that Nabokov's stories would all end in "...and then she died." The stories are all so depressing - why would anyone carry them around? I doubt Alexa's claim that she keeps them in her handbag. (I didn't win the Mulburry by the way - if anyone would like to buy/win/steal one for me that would be lovely.)

On my year abroad in Moscow I was taught literature by a lovely woman who was really passionate about it and got excited by poetry she'd heard a thousand times before. Our first assignment was to learn Pushkin's Я вас любил.../I loved you once... by heart. Reciting poetry is a Russian custom we don't really have in England - from a young age Russian children learn poetry off by heart and will recite it at family parties throughout their life. Not only did I fall in love with the poem but I fell in love with Pushkin. He died in a dual against his wife's alleged lover Georges d'Anthes to protect his wife's honour. A real life love tragedy. Poor Pushkin though - losing his life for his cheating wife. What a cow.
Our literature classes were brilliant because our teacher was just so animated about life, love and literature. She encouraged us to read more and to get the most out of our lives in Moscow, always advising us on which plays to see at the theatre and which exhibitions and museums to go to. She loved stories about true love and would always gush about the heroes and romance of the stories we read. One day however she asked us about our 'real life love stories'. My friend Sinead told the lovely story of how her and her boyfriend met. My teacher loved it, turned to me, her eyes shining expectantly... "I DON'T HAVE A BOYFRIEND," I sobbed.

The summer after my year abroad (probably inspired by my literature teacher) I decided to broaden my knowledge of Russian literature and decided to start with Nabokov's most notorious novel Lolita about the inappropriate relationship between a grown man and a young girl. Reading the novel I felt preeeeetty uncomfortable... but it's another one ticked off the list.

During my final year at university I studied Russian Intellectual and Political Thought, a module in which I learnt the political situations surrounding many Russian authors when they wrote their most noteworthy pieces of work. We discussed how Nikolai Gogol's novel Dead Souls was a political commentary on the emancipation of the serfs, how Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Nikolay Chernyshevksy argued politics through their novels Notes from Underground and What is to be Done? and how censorship meant many authors in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries ended up in prison or mental asylums; most notably Pyotr Chaadayev who was declared insane after the circulation of his Philosophical Letters leading him to denounce his previous work in his Apology of a Madman.

Now I've finished university I actually want to read these books as I've studied the themes surrounding them so in depth! I decided to start with Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (mainly because I found a copy on my boyfriend’s bookshelf and wanted to impress him by reading it). Whilst reading it I felt hugely intelligent because I did actually understand the political issues surrounding Tolstoy whilst he wrote the novel (thank you, Russian degree). The character of Levin is arguably based on Tolstoy himself; not only do they have the same name (Leo in Russian is Lev) but the character’s views seem to reflect Tolstoy's own outspoken views - he hated class hierarchy and would go and work in the fields alongside the peasants, just like the character in the novel. One of the things the novel is famous for is the repetition of names - there are multiple Annas, Alexis and Sergeis (or Anna's, Alexi's and Sergei's - apostrophe or not? Help please grammar geeks). In The Possessed Batuman says that she found the repetition of names 'remarkable, surprising, and true to life.' I however wasn't surprised. I always notice repetition of names in Russia a lot more than in England; on facebook I have 5 Olgas, 4 Anas and 4 Svetas, so to find this in a Russian novel seemed completely normal to me.

Now that I've finished my degree I've suddenly found that I can CHOOSE what I read next. This discovery fills me with pleasure and I have compiled a long reading list of works by Pasternak, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Pelevin, Tolstoy and many others to go through. Next on the list: Dr Zhivago - finally gonna read it 4 years after my (first class) presentation on it.

Minggu, 11 September 2011

Petrozavodsk - a guide

Petrozavodsk is one of my favourite places in Russia. It was the first Russian city I lived in and I loved it so much I have returned twice! Many people (Russians included) see Petrozavodsk as a standard Russian city with not much going on but I disagree. As the capital of Karelia, Petrozavodsk has an interesting mix of Russian and Finnish history, something which the city reflects now. More people should go and explore Petrozavodsk so for those in Russia, those planning a Russian adventure or first years at Birmingham University who are terrified of their compulsory trip (- don't be, it'll be great!) here is my guide to all things Petro.

When to go.
The best time to go to Petrozavodsk to get the most out of all it has to offer is during the warm summer; July in particular is a great month to go as you can experience the white nights and День Города (den goroda) - city day, when the whole city celebrates its founding.
However, if you're an ice and snow lover and want to experience a real Russian winter then head to Petro during the winter months when the temperature drops to -30ºC.

What to do - for free.

Lake Onego

One of the biggest lakes in Europe, at first glance Lake Onego looks like the sea. Walking along the banks of the river you can see different sculptures which were given by twin cities of Petrozavodsk. One of the best times to walk along the lake is in the evening during the summer when the atmosphere becomes festival like with people drinking beer together, playing guitar and enjoying the long summer evenings. In the cold winters the lake looks pretty cool frozen over but after standing next to it for a few minutes your face will start to look like this...


Note - Anabelle is wearing clothes under that towel.
Piski is Lake Onego's beach in the summer; the place to be to get a tan, have a cooling swim and build sandcastles. Remember to take your buckets and spades or you'll have to resort to using your hands like me and your sandcastles will end up looking rather breast like.

Cathedral of Aleksandr Nevskii

If you've been to a Russian cathedral before you'll know how beautifully they are decorated. This cathedral is no exception and it's a lovely quick excursion. Remember to dress appropriately - shoulders and knees covered. Girls have to cover their heads but scarves are provided at the entrance.

Stroll around the city

There are many памятники (pamyatniki) - monuments around the town which make a good walking route.
See if you can find Lenin...

Marx and Engels...

and Peter the Great

What to do - on a budget.

Petrozavodsk History Museum
The local museum on the history of the city is a great way to see how and why the mix of Russian and Finnish influences has shaped Petrozavodsk. If I remember correctly the information is in both Russian and English so there should be no problems with understanding. Also, make sure you give the lover (or presumably, lower) floor a visit.

Sexy history
 The theatre

As well as the main theatre (pictured) on Kirov Square, Petrozavodsk has a Finnish theatre and a music hall. It won't be difficult to find something interesting to watch. There are regular performances of Kantele and traditional dance and Petro has many theatre and music groups who are usually performing.

What to do - when you have money.

Kivach waterfall

I've only involved this in the more expensive section because of the cost involved in travelling there. Kivach is quite far out of the city centre so unless you have someone to drive you there you will have to get there by bus or coach. To visit the waterfall is actually free and is well worth doing, its one of the most beautiful places I've ever been in my life. Spectacular in the summer and mystical when frozen in the winter. It’s just gorgeous. Also, on the drive there you'll drive past one of the president's summer houses and notice that the road suddenly gets a lot smoother...


Definitely the most expensive thing to do in Petrozavodsk - it costs around £50 for the boat and a tour of the island. If you have the money though, it's well worth doing. The wooden buildings are amazing, especially the two churches. The guides give an interesting insight into the history of the island and in the churches the priests will sing prayers to visitors. Remember to charge your camera the night before you go. I've been twice now and still only have pictures of the first half of the island!

Where to eat - on a budget.


The cafe named after the aforementioned waterfall is my favourite cafe in Petrozavodsk - I drove Anabelle insane by insisting we go there almost everyday. The food is reasonably priced and ranges from Russian soups to pizzas and fajitas (have the fajitas - they're the best). Kivach also has free wifi meaning you can normally spot a foreigner in there on skype.

Chaynaya Lozhka

Translated as 'teaspoon' this cafe is blini (pancake) heaven with loads of toppings to choose from. Nice and cheap but be warned; the portions are quite small, so get 2!

Mak Dak

Petrozavodsk's answer to Macdonalds; where the menu is exactly the same but with subtle differences in meal names... and quality. Be sure to try the 'Funny Meal' - their version of a happy meal. Unfortunately when transliterated into Russian the 'u' in 'funny' becomes an 'a' leading to a LOT of laughter among immature foreigners. Can't think why...

Where to eat - when you have money.


Inspired by Parisian cafes, Parizhanka serves a variety of dishes including sandwiches, pasta, pizza and sushi. Although not a connoisseur of Parisian cafes, I don't really see the resemblance... apart from the overpriced food! However I do love the very Russian attempt at a French cafe and I do LOVE sushi. So if like me you are addicted to sushi then head here.

Where to stay.

Every time I have been to Petrozavodsk I have stayed with my Russian family Lyudmila and Olya who I was set up with by the university when I first studied there. For tourists there are a number of hotels including Hotel Severnaya in the centre of the city and Onego Palace near the lake.

Where to party!

Cafe FM

A fun bar in the centre of the town with food, cheap beer and a dance floor just about big enough. The best night to go is called Petro FM where there is a live singer who sings old school hits from the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. Maybe give the 'RnB' night a miss though - there's no DJ, just a playlist of songs that could loosely be described as 'RnB'.


If RnB and Hip Hop's your thing then head to Club Barcelona on a saturday night. 2 dance floors + cheap vodka and coke = dancing the night away.

If you're not a dancing queen and prefer to have a quieter drink then you are dull. Joking! (... kind of) But there are loads of nice bars around and most restaurants and cafes are open until late so head to them for a quiet drink.

Studying Russian in Petrozavodsk

If you'd like to get a real feel of Russian life then stay in Petrozavodsk for longer! The state university has a special department for foreigners to study Russian in Russia. There are courses suitable for absolute beginners who don't know the alphabet or a word of Russian and also advanced courses for those already studying Russian. The department will advise you on life in Petrozavodsk throughout your course and really are excellent at improving your Russian. If you're interested in Russia I'd really recommend starting any trip with a one month Russian course in Petrozavodsk in order to get the most out of Russia. To find out more about their courses visit their website.

Petrozavodsk is the underappreciated capital of Karelia and I hope this post has made you want to visit! It's a great city full of lovely, hospitable people. Go there and say hi from me!

Jumat, 09 September 2011

What I Learnt from The Art of Russia - BBC4

Despite my regular iplayer searches of the word 'Russia' I accidently missed the first two parts of this series on Russian art and only managed to catch the final episode. Nevertheless it was a really interesting watch, although did make me miss Моя Москва (maya moskva – my Moscow) a lot. 

I am not a massive art lover. I appreciate the skill that goes into creating a beautiful piece of work and love old oil paintings but anything that I don't understand/see the point of can never really capture my attention (modern art is not my friend). So I'm not a regular viewer of art related programmes but naturally anything with 'Russia' in the title will certainly draw me in and this short documentary was an interesting insight into how communism and revolution affected art in Russia... and vice versa.

Much of the programme was dedicated to the work of Alexander Rodchenko and his constructivist style which appealed to the Soviet authorities. His work is immediately recognisable as the 'Russian art style' of the early post revolution Soviet Union, like this poster encouraging people to read.

His style of using photography, shapes and bold words led the way for advertising and to the Westerner this kind of poster screams 'soviet propaganda' - I bet Topman is dying to turn this into a nice print t-shirt.

Any programme about Russian art wouldn't be complete without a trip to the Moscow metro, one of my favourite things about the city. The stations are decorated so beautifully, many of them inspired by Soviet writers, artists and architecture. The programme showed Mayakovsky station (incidentally named after one of Rodchenko's bessies - the Russian writer Mayakovsky, whose poems he illustrated with photo montages) and Ploshad Revolyutsii, one of the busiest stations, situated next to Red Square - cue lots of Russians looking angrily at the camera, annoyed at the disruption to their metro journey and the babushka in the little 'viewing hut' at the bottom of the escalator signalling at them to get out. The programme forgot to mention my favourite thing about this metro station though - the lucky dog! Forget the soviet inspired architecture; there is a statue of a dog in the station which is believed to be lucky... so much so that the bronze on its nose has been worn away because passengers rub his nose on their journeys.


As well as focussing on the ways that revolution and communism affected art, the programme explored the ways that art affected a different kind of revolution - the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the 1970s some artists staged an open exhibition of uncensored art in a forest near Moscow - it didn't take long for the police to come and destroy the work of the artists. This led to a public outcry so big that the authorities allowed the artists to put on their exhibition again in the centre of Moscow, one of the first steps towards uncensored art.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union the art world practically exploded. Now uncensored artists churned out piece after piece of work that would have been completely unheard of just a few years earlier. How much the state approved art world has actually changed though is a different matter. The current president of the Russian Academy of Arts is a Georgian-Russian artist called Zurab Tsereteli who designed the Peter the Great statue that stands in Moscow.

I'm not a fan of this statue, I've always thought it looks more like Captain Hook. The Kremlin seem to like it though and Tsereteli has close ties with the present Russian authorities. I wonder why...

Another Tsereteli creation

 The Art of Russia will be on BBC iplayer for those in the UK for the next few days - give it a watch!